On December 24, 1999, Indian Airlines flight IC814 from Kathmandu, Nepal to New Delhi was hijacked by Pakistan-based terror group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.
The hijack situation lasted for seven days, touching four countries and ended when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was forced to release three terrorists to save the lives of 176 passengers and 15 crew members on board.
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Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh escorted the terrorists—Masood Azhar, Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtak Ahmad Zargar—to Kandahar, where the final negotiations were held.
Azhar went on to establish the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in 2000 which was held responsible for the 2001 Parliament attack, while Sheikh allegedly played a role in planning the 9/11 terror attacks.
Vajpayee, prime minister at the time, was criticised for the way the crisis was handled. Critics accused his government of compromising with terrorists.
The Congress party also demanded an unconditional apology from Vajpayee for having aided anti-Indian elements.
According to a report by The Hindu, the Congress also said that the BJP’s soft approach laid the ‘foundation of terrorism’ not only in India but the world. Former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) AS Dulat said there was a ‘goof-up’ in the Kandahar hijack response by the government.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah did not want to release the militants in exchange for the safety of hostages, according to Dulat.
The aircraft was hijacked at 5.30 pm IST and was first landed in Amritsar due to lack of fuel.
The government could have taken the decision to immobilise the aircraft but was struck with paralysis at that point. IC-814 then flew to Lahore and then to Dubai, where 27 of the 176 passengers were released but one of them was stabbed to death.
India was declined help from the West, from the UAE government and Pakistan government during as the hijacking situation unfolded.
Vajpayee had convened an all-party meeting in which Manmohan Singh had participated as the Leader of Opposition. Former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh said it was a national decision and not a single party one.
Observers believe that the party’s hands were tied and there was no other outcome at that point. Vajpayee did not have an option other than giving in to the demands of the terrorists. To further complicate matters, the hijack was being played out in the land of Taliban and the hideout of terrorist Osama bin Laden.
When the pilots, the crew and civilians returned to New Delhi, thousands gathered to welcome them at the airport.
Some also suggest that the country would have erupted in anger if Vajpayee had sacrificed an innocent life.